Singing out: Sonali Hippalgaonkar, left, rehearses with a cappella group Dèjà Blue. Jon Gardiner.
Singing out: Sonali Hippalgaonkar, left, rehearses with a cappella group Dèjà Blue. Jon Gardiner.

Shoo-Bee Doo-Bee Duke

A cappella groups on campus rely on no background music, no pyrotechnics--just the music of the sound of each other's voices.
Writer: 
November 30, 2002

Listen to one of Duke's vocal groups, The Pitchforks, sing "Good Old A Cappella" on their 1998 CD Tastefully Done. Male harmony sings, "Shoo-bee-doo-wop, bop, bop... soul to soul, brother to brother, a cappella, well, it sounds good to me." You might think you're back in the Fifties, in the days of barbershop quartets, sweet Adelines, and "Down by the Old Mill Stream." But a quick glance at The Pitchforks' repertoire, which includes covers of songs by Toad the Wet Sprocket, Dire Straits, Lenny Kravitz, and Marc Cohn, provides clear evidence that this isn't your grandfather's a cappella.

A cappella--music made only with the voice--has experienced a boom in the last decade. According to the Contemporary A Cappella Society (CASA), there are now more than 500 collegiate groups. Deke Sharon, president of CASA and musical director for The House Jacks, a professional a cappella group, says, "A cappella music has been around longer than any other form and is a part of every culture and tradition around the globe. To the outside world, however, a cappella usually connotes barbershop, doo-wop, or choral music--none of which accurately represents many current groups."


Much of the growth in a cappella music has been fueled by college groups like those at Duke, including the oldest groups, the all-male Pitchforks (founded in 1979) and the all-female Out of the Blue (founded in 1980). Other campus groups are Lady Blue; Speak of the Devil; Something Borrowed, Something Blue; DÈj‡ Blue; and Rhythm and Blue.Performers and music executives trace the origins of this interest back to one man and one song--Bobby McFerrin and his 1988 chart-topper, "Don't Worry, Be Happy." McFerrin's ability to create a broad range of sounds without instruments in addition to singing lyrics opened many listeners' ears to the possibilities of the human voice. He pioneered what a cappella enthusiasts call "vocal percussion," the art of expressing rhythm with nothing but your lips, tongue, and voice. His playfulness appealed to young singers and, with the rise of rhythm-driven music like rap and hip-hop, college students found they could create innovative music, replicating and expanding on contemporary songs without instrumental accompaniment.

Why do students gravitate toward these groups? Former Pitchforks' member and business manager Bret Runestad '02 has one answer: getting to sing, but getting to sing with a certain style. "I did a lot of more formal singing in high school, both for my school choir and for a more exclusive, smaller madrigal ensemble," he says. "While I loved being a part of that, when I went home at night, the music I was listening to was a far cry from the classical and formal pieces I was singing. When I arrived at Duke, I retained a desire to sing, but I also had a real desire to loosen up and have more fun with it and sing more contemporary material. A cappella was the logical extension."

Dave Chong '03, of Something Borrowed, Something Blue, first felt the pull of a cappella during a visit to campus while a senior in high school. "My host was in Lady Blue, so I got to see them and The Pitchforks perform," he says. "This was a very cool way of musical expression. They all looked like they were having fun, enjoying singing and each other. Half of the appeal of a cappella is image. You can't help but think to yourself, 'Heck, if I could sing like that--and, more recently, dance like that--I'll look good and get women. I'll be cool.' As vulnerable, clean-slated freshmen, we all want to be liked, and there aren't many people who dislike a cappella here at Duke. It's a tradition."

Each of the groups has a distinct idea of who they are and what they sing, and the differences point to Runestad's idea of "loosening up." The Pitchforks, for example, "maintain two repertoires throughout the school year," he says, "a more modern one for campus and dorm shows, and a more traditional 'oldies but goodies' set for other occasions."

Out of the Blue was founded twelve years ago when four sophomores were lamenting the lack of a women's counterpart to The Pitchforks. According to the group's own history, Elisa Buono Glazer '83, Mary Pat Evans '83, Harriet Cann Connolly '83, and Loa Heymann '83 fell into a conversation about music, singing, and their love of a cappella, and talked themselves into a group. That group still "places emphasis on the musical aspect of a cappella," says Meg Watson '02, business manager for the group before graduating. "We have extremely difficult and layered arrangements, trying to stay as true to the original song as possible. It has been noted to us that this is the major point of separation between OOTB and other female groups on campus."

The intricacies of a cappella harmonies contribute not only to prominence but also to camaraderie, says Watson. "College a cappella allows members of the group to become very close on a musical and personal level. From practically the first day of fall semester, as a freshman, I had a group of older female friends to go to with questions," she says. "There's a reliance on other members of the group that exceeds that in a normal chorus, which--at least in Out of the Blue--has made us a close-knit group of girls."

Another tight-knit group of a cappella women, Lady Blue, has a website that describes them as "road-trip queens with hip wardrobes and a penchant for outlet malls, karate, silly string, dance parties (even without any great dance talent), and funky pants."

Many campuses also host a cappella groups who perform religious music, and Duke is no different. Something Borrowed, Something Blue began in 1969 as the Christian folk band Jesus Christ Power & Light Co. It's now affectionately nicknamed Borrowed and Blue, "a Christian co-ed a cappella group, all from different fellowships, guys and girls who love God and love to sing," according to its website. "We try to share the love of God and give testimony of what He's done in our lives through a cappella music, ranging from old school to new school, from contemporary Christian music to popular music to original arrangements--but basically music with a message of sorts, since we consider ourselves an a cappella ministry." Tim Chung '01, Borrowed and Blue's co-music director during his days with the group, says, "I like to think we sing with purpose. Being able to believe what I sing from the heart, expressing what is more important than all the silly little details I worry about in life."

Perfect pitch: The Pitchforks sing the National Anthem in Wallace Wade Stadium

Perfect pitch: The Pitchforks sing the National Anthem in Wallace Wade Stadium.

Other groups sing from the heart in their own styles. DÈj‡ Blue, a women's group founded in 1999, performs a variety of female a cappella music, ranging in style and time period from Renaissance madrigals to Forties barbershop. Speak of the Devil sings old favorites and contemporary hits.

There are several campus a cappella events--some recurring, and some, like Lady Blue's Ten-Year Homecoming concert, a one-time occasion. The Pitchforks' Runestad says, "My favorite experience is our yearly Christmas concert in the Gothic Reading Room. Every year, we sing to a completely packed house, and it always starts off the Christmas season for me." Out of the Blue's Watson says, "I love performing for the freshman A Cappellooza concert in Page [Auditorium] every August. It is a great experience. A very, very close second, however, is our big spring concert, the weekend before spring break starts."

" For the listener," says Watson, "college a cappella offers a venue for people to go and hear popular music being performed. On Duke's campus, there are lots of opportunities to go to classical performances, but we rarely get nonclassical groups. That's where we come in. I think that many listeners are shocked when they first hear an a cappella group perform, because of the many layers of musicality that go into each song. I know a lot of people who sang in high school who are in awe of collegiate a cappella."

Using the music to share a message draws in other audiences as well. Chong says the expression of faith in the group's music is an integral part of their performance. "Obviously, we are set apart from some of the other groups because we are Christian; that's automatically a turn-off for some people, unfortunately," he says. "But Christianity dictates that our image with people is not important. It's not about what the world thinks. We're here to serve God, not man.

" So, in Borrowed and Blue, I sing for a few reasons. One is musical worship, just like you might find in a church. We actually believe what we sing, either encouraging people in faith or trying to convey a message or testimony of what and why we believe. For some listeners, it's really encouraging to hear some of what we sing about. And to those who don't share our faith, we want them to be able to enjoy our music. We strive for musical excellence. Those two standards will always be there."

While Chong says listener support for a cappella can ebb and flow a bit as students find other commitments or turn from one group to another, The Pitchforks' Runestad has organized the music's fan base into three groups. "Primarily, the people that are at the majority of our concerts are friends and acquaintances of group members who enjoy seeing people they know perform," he says. "There are also the more passive fans, who will go to a concert when it's at their dorm, or if friends of theirs are going, or if it's a big event like the huge orientation show or the Parents Weekend shows in which multiple groups are performing.

" Finally, there are some die-hard fans of the music we create and the performances we give. I don't know if it's the 'boy-band' phenomenon, but there are some people who really think we're the best show in town. And group members have been the subjects of crushes from people they don't even know. One of the Pitchforks had reconstructive surgery on his knee and, as he was recovering in his room, a girl he didn't know walked in, gave him a pie she had baked, said she was a huge Pitchforks fan, and wished him a speedy recovery."

The groups also perform off campus, with fellow Duke groups and some from other colleges, and on tour during fall and spring breaks. Out of the Blue's recent trips took in Atlanta, Charlotte, and Miami, while The Pitchforks have been to Florida, California, Hawaii, London, and Nassau. Rhythm and Blue has performed at Boston University, the University of Maryland, and the College of William and Mary, and have hosted the Princeton Nassoons, UNC's Tarheels With Voices, Tufts' Amalgamates, and others at various concerts. Lady Blue traveled to the Bahamas last spring, and Borrowed and Blue has sung throughout the Northeast and the South, as well as in Chicago and Hawaii.

For some students, most of the fun occurs on the road. Lillis Weeks '02, former general manager of Borrowed and Blue, says, the trip to Hawaii "was amazing on all levels--not just being on a beautiful island, but getting to hang with students from the University [of Hawaii] who were excited about us being there, doing some fun concerts, sharing stuff about God that excites me, being challenged in so many ways...just amazing."

Singing with other groups around the country has led to a national reputation for Duke's a cappella groups, one furthered by their inclusion in an album series called The Best of College A Cappella, or BOCA, produced by Varsity Vocals. "Being on BOCA is great," says The Pitchforks' Runestad, "simply because it places us among the best a cappella groups in the nation, and it helps distribute our music across the country."

Started in 1995, the BOCA series now totals nine, including a humor album, Wasting Our Parents' Money. Out of the Blue is one of the most-represented groups in the BOCA series. In 2002, their rendition of "Eve" landed on the disc. In past BOCA recordings, they or their Duke a cappella peers have covered The Dixie Chicks' "You Were Mine," Annie Lennox's "Train in Vain," Peter Gabriel's "Mercy Street," Bonnie Raitt's "Nick of Time," and Toad the Wet Sprocket's "All I Want."

According to Thomas King, assistant editor and producer for the Southeast region for Varsity Vocals, "It is extremely difficult to get on the CDs. During any given year, as many as 150 recordings are being produced around the country by collegiate groups. Multiply that with, say, at least twelve tracks per recording, and you begin to see the odds that groups face in terms of getting on the CD."

Varsity Vocals also sponsors the Intercollegiate Championship of A Cappella (ICCA), held in locations around the country each year in the winter, culminating in a national competition in New York each April at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall. In 2001, 108 groups participated in twenty-five concerts in six regions. "On average, there are twenty-five to thirty groups for eighteen spots," says King. "Some groups are rejected during the audition process, since groups have to be as professional with the audition materials as they would be if they were performing for us onstage." Several Duke groups have competed in the past; in 2001, Rhythm and Blue's Erica Featherstone '03 won an arrangement award, while Jeremy Cromer '03 won a soloist award. Dave Widders '02 of Speak of the Devil was a runner-up for arrangement.

Duke's groups are held in high regard at Varsity Vocals. "Out of the Blue's talent and musicality have been of such high caliber consistently over the years that it's sometimes hard to remember that the roster of the group changes each year. You'd think those women had sung together for years," King says. "The Pitchforks are the gentlemen of a cappella. I love the music they do and the way they carry themselves in such a positive manner. Speak of the Devil's choreography is some of the best in men's a cappella. They have this great sex appeal, which drives audiences crazy. I'm partial to co-ed groups, though, so Rhythm and Blue and Borrowed and Blue hold special places in my heart."

Dave Chong looks at Duke's "loyal fans" and sees an embrace of the a cappella culture. "A cappella is fun," he says. "We express that in our songs and expressions--that we are having fun, that we're singing because we like to. Hopefully, we sound good to us and to the audience."

It's fun, and it's relatively simple to have that fun, as Runestad explains. "With ten of my good friends around, we can make something out of nothing. That's such a creatively satisfying experience."

Plakcy is a Florida-based freelance writer.